How the Nets Are Surviving Without Kyrie Irving

Without Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert, the Nets have managed to stay afloat. But how long could it last?
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No matter the offseason changes made, the Brooklyn Nets are still finding themselves in déjà vu.

Every team deals with injuries, and the Nets have felt theirs early and often. While the squad has been without starting guards Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert since mid-November and Kevin Durant for the whole season, the team lost another rotation player after David Nwaba tore his Achilles in Brooklyn’s loss to San Antonio on Thursday.

The gaps in the lineup have only gotten wider and leave the Nets in a similar situation to last season. In 2018-19, LeVert was out for three months with a dislocated foot, a blow to a team that started 6-8 behind LeVert’s 18.4 points per game. In his stead, a team led by D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie adapted and battled to a 42-40 record, sixth place in the East and a first-round playoff exit.

Now this season without LeVert’s 16.8 points per game and Irving’s 28.5, the Nets have managed again to stay afloat, putting up a 15-13 record without their top stars, including 11-6 in Irving’s stead. While LeVert is reportedly on track in his recovery from thumb surgery and Irving remains out of contact practice with a shoulder impingement, role players new and old have shown their versatility and utilized a focus on paint presence and defense to keep the team relevant despite the blow of players’ injuries.

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, the Nets’ engine has been powered by Spencer Dinwiddie. Moving from his bench-leading role into Irving’s slot in the starting lineup, Dinwiddie has been making an All-Star case while picking up a majority of Brooklyn’s offense and adding a clutch hand. His 22.1 points per game have been an uptick from his 16.8 mark in 2018-19, and his consistency—led by 15 games with 20+ points in his last 17 starts—has been Brooklyn’s rock.

Dinwiddie has referred to himself as an amoeba, adapting to Brooklyn’s needs and, as a result, being the forefront of the team’s paint attack. His aggression is a large reason why the Nets are fourth in the league in drives per game (52.2) and attempt the most shots in the restricted area per game (36). All the while, Dinwiddie is reaching career-highs and is not afraid to put up a poster along the way.

With his craftiness, Dinwiddie stands at seventh in the NBA in drives per game with 17.3, and that part of his repertoire has become the Nets’ bread and butter in this stretch without Irving and LeVert.

Another difference-maker for Brooklyn has been the improved play from big man Jarrett Allen, who often finds himself connecting with Dinwiddie. After a sluggish start to the season, Allen has proven himself as an impact starter and is averaging a double-double in his leading role.

Allen’s place in the lineup was questioned after the Nets acquired DeAndre Jordan in the offseason, but the veteran addition has only elevated Allen’s game with his mentorship. Allen complements the success Brooklyn has found in the paint and on defense, as his improved rebounding has him top-three in the league in offensive rebounding percentage (14.5) and his strength and positioning allow him to cut to the basket, clean up missed shots and—as he does best—protect the rim with authority.

Coach Kenny Atkinson has fostered his players’ growth, and the epitome of that continues to be Joe Harris. Harris is once again top-three in the league in three-point percentage (.429), but he constantly proves that he is one of the best finishers in the game.

As Brooklyn’s second-leading scorer in LeVert and Irving’s stead with 14.9 points per game, Harris’ hustle adds another layer to Brooklyn’s paint attack while his three-pointers give the Nets an outlet in times of need.

New additions have also made their presence felt for Brooklyn as injuries mount. Acquired from Atlanta in the offseason, Taurean Prince has added an athletic body to Brooklyn’s roster and gives the Nets an extended three-point threat. Meanwhile, Jordan has been effective off the bench in rebounding and bodying his way inside and Garrett Temple has taken on a greater load offensively.

Brooklyn has put together a winning record without its stars, but it will not go the distance without them. After the team acquired its largest free-agent class in franchise history, the Nets were not betting on hitting déjà vu so quickly and consistently, especially as Nwaba’s injury now keeps him out for the year. Brooklyn often finds itself without the extra boost it needs, playing the fourth-most clutch games in the NBA that are within five points with less than five minutes remaining (19).

But what the Nets have experienced in those situations are familiar moments of resolve, whether it be in a close game or when a star goes out for a lengthy period. It is the same fight that made the Nets an unlikely playoff team in 2018-19, and has kept them in the running now at seventh place in the East.

It will take some more waiting to see the team’s true potential. But for now, a Dinwiddie-led team again continues to adjust its plan to stay afloat, rooted in adapting, attacking and being an amoeba in the face of adversity.